Wikiwhy? (or the brain is a terrible thing to waste)

11 05 2009

First of all about the brain.  Got a head injury playing soccer and sustained a skull fracture.  Thankfully no hearing loss or long term damage expected.  It does however get you thinking about how whether the class is virtual/hybrid/or bricks and mortar, you need your brain to do anything while there.  Lots of flashes of mortality and thoughts about how my profession is totally based on my brain and what it would be like to lose any of that facility.   Thankfully everything turned out okay and I can go back to soccer in June.  Hooray for flying elbows, crushing headers, and concussive shots to the face!

Now to some relevant content.  Before I got my melon thunked I was thinking about the myriad uses of a wiki in teaching/learning environments and I thought I’d list a few.  So here it goes in simple bulleted fashion:

First and foremost is the ability to make an easy to access and updateable course site for a class.  Wikis don’t require the kind of skills that full html or php web design take and it means you can make a robust, multi-paged site pretty easily.  For me the most useful aspect of this is creating a much more enriched syllabus that can be constantly changing and allows for relatively simple low stakes interaction by students.  Not only can I quickly post assignments, but I can upload files, post links to online readings, and even embed media where possible.  This means each class session gets its own page which I can build upon for students and that they can easily access.  Rahter than handing out lots of papers or having them run all over creation for different resources everything can be more centralized and they can focus on the content.  It also gives me a space to put materials that I may use for teaching a class (say a performance video or image) that may not be assigned for reviewing beforehand but are now accessible to them at any point after the class.  If they get into it they can even add stuff that they find interesting and relevant.

Second is that wikis provide a platform for working collaboratively and exposing students to different modes of creation, composition, and assignment structure.  I have done a lot of work with students on group projects, and since many of the real life situations they will face once they finish their education require working in groups it seems to me that these types of assignments provide students with the opportunity to experience the world as they will encounter it.  This is particularly true as social media become a daily part of not only our leisure activities but also our workspaces.  It pays to help students experience both the possibilities of these tools for work but also the social dynamics that come to play in these types of spaces and the way they must interact with others while within these spaces.  Along with the social dynamics of the social media space and the composition possibilities it is also always good to play around with the wikis to help students question and rethink the modes of writing that we are used to and how the creation of content is different when multiple voices are contributing to the same materials.  Testing students comfort levels with changing each other’s work and reworking the contribution of others is often an interesting experiment that reveals much about their approaches to authorial voice, ownership, and creative priviliges.

Third is that wikis are eminently useful in getting students to start working within the world of web publishing.  So much of the writing we do these days is aimed at Internet audiences and those audiences are becoming more accustomed to multimedia presentations of content that it behooves us to include in the process of teaching reading and writing an understanding of how to be fluent as a reader and writer of digital information.  Wikis provide a platform where students can experiment with web publishing with a very low barrier of entry.  They learn a little about coding, a little about embedding, a little about formatting, and a little about the relationship between text and other media such as video and recorded sound.  It is easy to make a page, make a link, and expand the site so that the course site as a whole becomes a place for them to contribute and create and not just a bulletin board of information that I post on (which is all very Web 2.0). I find that by having my students hand in their writing assignments on the wiki they are experiencing the next step of digital composition past traditional word processing.  Although they are usually initially just a little scared of it, by the end of a semester they are much more invested in figuring out how to manage and manipulate different media in their writing and they begin experimenting in ways that I wouldn’t have expected.  Even just having them post their work online where their classmates can see it changes the stakes of the writing as they recognize that other people can see what they are posting.  It is amazing how that social aspect can influence their motivation to complete their work a little bit better, and that is a reality of web publishing after all.

Lastly is the history feature of the wiki.  The fact that every iteration of a page is saved in a wiki allows for a history to become apparent.  This is useful first of all because there is no fear of vandalism.  You can always revert to a previous version and instantaeously erase any mischief.  You can also see a user history to see how individuals are contributing to a group project or see if there are any unusual contributions.  Finally the history is a good tool to watch someone’s ork develop, and you can get a little inside their process which has such a tremendous impact on understanding the way a student works and why he arrives at where he does when handing in an assignment.

Well those are some of the reasons why I use wikis.  The more I use them the more I have come to appreciate their capabilities and the value of there almost infinite expandability.  Most wiki setups don’t have limits to the numbers of pages you can create and they also ultimately accomodate other more complicated language schemas within them, such as HTML and Java.  Would love to hear experiences and opinions about wikis and always willing to answer questions for people who have yet to use them and are hoping to implement them in their own pedagogical setups.



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